THE BLOG

Syrian Refugees - Avoiding a 'Lost Generation'

04/12/2015 17:49 GMT | Updated 04/12/2016 10:12 GMT

I've spent the last couple of months helping put together a fundraising effort to raise money for Syrian refugees called 'Star Boot Sale'. The proceeds are going to the International Rescue Committee (IRC), a charity which can trace its roots to a 1930s effort by Albert Einstein to rescue Germans being persecuted by the Nazis. The IRC is now at the forefront of relief efforts in the Middle East and beyond.

Earlier this week I was able to grab half an hour on the phone with IRC's Mark Schnellbaecher. Mark has been working in the Middle East for a decade, and for the last two years as IRC's Syria Crisis Regional Director, with responsibility for operations in Syria, Iraq, Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey.

He described visiting Beirut three weeks ago, where IRC run a project for young Syrian refugee children. The project reaches out to the children who are working instead of being in school, trying to re-establish routines, provide basic education and access to services.

Mark went round the room, asking the children where their safe spaces were - where they could go if there was fighting. The children said there were no safe places any more in Syria. They'd be safe when they got to Germany.

It was a worrying shift in attitudes he'd noticed in many Syrian refugees over the last few months - they'd stopped talking about returning home. He described it as if something had happened to hope.

Certainly there seems no prospect of and end to war in Syria, a situation which is becoming ever more complicated as the interests of the warring parties get ever more entrenched.

Mark held out little hope for the Vienna Process peace talks. Many of the parties at the table have diametrically opposed interests, and there are few signs that the warring parties are close to the point of exhaustion, or are in a negotiating mood.

Many families have been refugees for almost five years now. Their children are unlikely to have been in school during that time, and the families are likely to have burned through whatever resources they had when they fled home.

International aid is falling as need is rising. Work is difficult to find (and often illegal) for refugees, who are paid much less than the locals, with no enforcement of labour standards.

Put bluntly, the once middle class Syrian refugee population is now pauperised, and desperate, which has driven them to pay large amounts of money and take huge risks crossing a continent to Northern Europe.

Charities including the IRC are having to think differently about what they can do to support Syrian refugees. If many don't return home for years, or never do, a simple maintenance programme will no longer be enough.

If we are to avoid a lost generation, refugee children need to go back to school. Many have been out of school for three or four years, and there is a mountain of work just to catch up. Their parents need to be able to find legal, non-exploitative work. So they can support their families and rebuild their lives.

If we are serious about helping those fleeing the wars in Syria, we have to find imaginative and innovative ways to support refugees, so that family structures and hope for the future don't disintegrate entirely.

And if we are serious about stemming the flow of refugees into Northern Europe, simply giving refugee families in the Middle East access to work and education could do far more good than any of the current attempts to seal the borders.